One morning, Heaven McGeehan in Pennsylvania received an unexpected package from China. It was a small ePacket -- an economy international shipping option offered by China Post in cooperation with local partner. She opened the package and found a black hair tie inside.
McGeehan was bewildered. Sure enough, the parcel was addressed to her -- correct name and correct address -- but she did not place such an order, nor did she see why someone in China would send her the parcel.
It happened again the next day: another parcel from China arrived, still with a hair tie inside. Then, the same thing happened again and again, and McGeehan's home was stacked full of such unsolicited parcels. Finally, she had no interest to trace and just threw these "gifts" in the trash.
Why would Chinese people spend time, money and effort to send a stranger in Pennsylvania free hair ties? It is self-evident that this is brushing.
Chinese agents sending parcels to McGeehan repeatedly is a devious way to increase sales and obtain positive feedback by fraud.
Clearly, a "brushing" firm somehow got McGeehan's name and address -- she once placed legitimate orders on a Chinese e-commerce platform and then generated user profiles. Sellers wish to boost sales and get positive reviews, so they pretend to be actual customers and place orders via fake accounts, and then send the products to the actual customers. When the delivery of parcels is confirmed, they create favorable reviews that appear to be "verified" on the platform.
The hair ties received by McGeehan are probably not the actual items reviewed by the Chinese brushers, but some low-cost stand-ins. In this case, what is contained in the packages does not matter, because what they want is only successful delivery. At least packages to McGeehan contain something and some people in the U.S. report that their mailboxes are filled with empty parcels.
Low Risk Cost
The international express service ePacket launched by China Post and the United Postal Union to boost the cross-border e-commerce allows Chinese people to send small parcels to the U.S. at a very low cost.
On most major e-commerce platforms, rankings are based on the number of sales, positive reviews, etc. Consumers also want to purchase from sellers with good reputation and large sales volume, because this makes them feel much more assured. Therefore, the competition for the top listings of popular products is fierce, and some sellers take brushing as a way to game the algorithms.
Brushing does work. In 2019, a research team from the College of William and Mary tracked 4,109 sellers brushing on Taobao (the most famous Chinese online shopping website) and found that their rankings rose 10 times faster than legitimate sellers. The team also found that this was a very low-risk method because only 89 (2.2%) of the sellers monitored were penalized.
Exploit the Loophole
In China, brushing can be made in various forms. Some use robots, some hire people to buy products and write reviews, some hack legitimate accounts, while others clearly use the identities of real people located abroad to send them piles of useless packages.
Not only is brushing illegal in China but also it may constitute false advertising and mail fraud in the U.S. In McGeehan's case, however, the infringement crosses national borders, which means that the criminals could go completely unpunished.
In an era when goods can almost be sent anywhere freely, borders have become a major loophole for criminals to evade punishment. In most cases, few laws apply if the seller and the buyer of a product are in different countries, and internet protocols, consumer safety and postal regulations become meaningless.
Now, cross-border e-commerce has become the new "Wild West", a place where people can send unwanted hair ties to a stranger in another country.
Once you receive an unknown package that you didn’t order from China. You need to check your credit card to make sure you are not charged. If you don’t want to keep it, you can return it back to the sender if the address for return back is clear.